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American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865

The Final Campaigns

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American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865

Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon, CSA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration
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Campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley

In conjunction with his Overland Campaign, Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel to move southwest "up" the Shenandoah Valley to destroy the rail and supply center of Lynchburg. Sigel began his advance but was defeated at New Market on May 15, and replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter. Pressing on, Hunter won a victory at the Battle of Piedmont on June 5-6. Concerned about the threat posed to his supply lines and hoping to force Grant to divert forces from Petersburg, Lee dispatched Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early with 15,000 men to the Valley.

Monocacy & Washington

After halting Hunter at Lynchburg on June 17-18, Early swept unopposed down the Valley. Entering Maryland, he turned east to menace Washington. As he moved towards the capital, he defeated a small Union force under Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace at Monocacy on July 9. Though a defeat, Monocacy delayed Early's advance allowing Washington to be reinforced. On July 11 and 12, Early attacked the Washington defenses at Fort Stevens with no success. On the 12th, Lincoln viewed part of the battle from the fort becoming the only sitting president to be under fire. Following his attack on Washington, Early withdrew to the Valley, burning Chambersburg, PA along the way.

Sheridan in the Valley

To deal with the Early, Grant dispatched his cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan with an army of 40,000 men. Advancing against Early, Sheridan won victories at Winchester (September 19) and Fisher's Hill (September 21-22) inflicting heavy casualties. The decisive battle of the campaign came at Cedar Creek on October 19. Launching a surprise attack at dawn, Early's men drove the Union troops from their camps. Sheridan, who was away at a meeting in Winchester, raced back to his army and rallied the men. Counterattacking, they broke Early's disorganized lines, routing the Confederates and forcing them to flee the field. The battle effectively ended the fighting in the Valley as both sides rejoined their larger commands at Petersburg.

Election of 1864

As military operations continued, President Lincoln stood for reelection. Partnering with War Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, Lincoln ran on the National Union (Republican) ticket under the slogan "Don't Change Horses in the Middle of a Stream." Facing him was his old nemesis Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan who was nominated on a peace platform by the Democrats. Following Sherman's capture of Atlanta and Farragut's triumph at Mobile Bay, Lincoln's reelection was all but assured. His victory was a clear signal to the Confederacy that there would be no political settlement and that war would be prosecuted to end. In the election, Lincoln won 212 electoral votes to McClellan's 21.

Battle of Fort Stedman

In January 1865, President Jefferson Davis appointed Lee to command of all Confederate armies. With the western armies decimated, this move came too late for Lee to effectively coordinate a defense of the remaining Confederate territory. The situation worsened that month when Union troops captured Fort Fisher, effectively closing the Confederacy's last major port, Wilmington, NC. At Petersburg, Grant kept pressing his lines west, forcing Lee to further stretch his army. By mid-March, Lee began to consider abandoning the city and making an effort to link up with Confederate forces in North Carolina.

Prior to pulling out, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon suggested a daring attack on the Union lines with the goal of destroying their supply base at City Point and forcing Grant to shorten his lines. Gordon launched his attack on March 25 and overran Fort Stedman in the Union lines. Despite early success, his breakthrough was quickly contained and his men driven back to their own lines.

Battle of Five Forks

Sensing Lee was weak, Grant ordered Sheridan to attempt a move around the Confederate right flank to the west of Petersburg. To counter this move, Lee dispatched 9,200 men under Maj. Gen. George Pickett to defend the vital crossroads of Five Forks and the Southside Railroad, with orders to hold them "at all hazards." On March 31, Sheridan's force encountered Pickett's lines and moved to attack. After some initial confusion, Sheridan's men routed the Confederates, inflicting 2,950 casualties. Pickett, who was away at a shad bake when the fighting started, was relieved of his command by Lee.

The Fall of Petersburg

The following morning, Lee informed President Davis that Richmond and Petersburg would have to be evacuated. Later that day, Grant launched a series of massive assaults all along the Confederate lines. Breaking through in numerous places, Union forces forced the Confederates to surrender the city and flee west. With Lee's army in retreat, Union troops entered Richmond on April 3, finally achieving one of their principle war goals. The next day, President Lincoln arrived to visit the fallen capital.

The Road to Appomattox

After occupying Petersburg, Grant began chasing Lee across Virginia with Sheridan's men in the lead. Moving west and harried by Union cavalry, Lee hoped to re-supply his army before heading south to link up with forces under Gen. Joseph Johnston in North Carolina. On April 6, Sheridan was able to cut off approximately 8,000 Confederates under Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell at Sayler's Creek. After some fighting the Confederates, including eight generals, surrendered. Lee, with fewer than 30,000 hungry men, hoped to reach supply trains that were waiting at Appomattox Station. This plan was dashed when Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. George A. Custer arrived in the town and burned the trains.

Lee next set his sights on reaching Lynchburg. On the morning of April 9, Lee ordered Gordon to break through the Union lines that blocked their path. Gordon's men attacked but were stopped. Now surrounded on three sides, Lee accepted the inevitable stating, "Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths."

 

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